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Spring Hill is hit, but no one is hurt

Dozens of houses and at least six other buildings, including a fire station, a church and a retirement home, sustained considerable damage Saturday afternoon as tornadoes skipped through this sprawling Hernando community.

Two small twisters touched down in Citrus County, causing minor damage. No injuries were reported in either county.

"I was looking up at the clouds . . . and then I saw parts of the church in the sky," Tim Koski, 29, said of St. Frances Cabrini Church in Spring Hill. "The sky looked like a big steam ball. Everything was floating in the air."

The same stormy weather system that ravaged parts of Pinellas County spawned the twister that touched down in northeastern Spring Hill about noon, scarcely 30 minutes after officials issued a tornado watch.

The worst damage was near Roble Avenue and Mariner Boulevard. The church and Spring Hill Fire and Rescue Station No. 4, both on Mariner, took the hardest hits.

"We heard the strong winds and we dove into an alcove just as the roof fell in," said Lucy Johnson, who was in the church's adjacent parish center.

"I screamed, 'This is a tornado,' and the wind blew in, and everything started to scatter," said Margie Alexczuk, who was with the Johnsons. "The roof just came down."

Saturday night Mass was held a few miles away at Springstead High School. Masses will continue at the school until the damage is repaired, church officials said.

The church, completed just a few years ago, sustained considerable damage. The roofs of both church and parish center partly collapsed, and pieces of blue aluminum were scattered throughout the neighborhood, wrapped around trees and littering yards.

The fire station, across the street, lost two doors and part of its roof.

When the twister struck, every firefighter on duty was busy working traffic accidents. Firefighters didn't learn their own neighborhood needed help the most until returning to quarters.

"When I came up the hill, I saw all the trees down and I called dispatch," Lt. Marvin Prate said.

Judging from the trail of damaged buildings, uprooted trees and cars pushed aside like toys, the tornado first hit Spring Hill near Tiffin Avenue on the north end of the east side of Mariner Boulevard. It continued directly north for about 2 miles before breaking up near the High Point subdivision on State Road 50.

"I thought it was hailing because of all the stuff hitting the windows," said John Lester, 23, who lives on Roble.

Evergreen Woods Retirement Center on State Road 50 sustained considerable damage to its dietary center, director Dan Benson said. No residents were injured and no evacuations or room reassignments were necessary.

"It hit the back end of our dietary department. Half the wall caved in on its supports," Benson said. By early evening, though, everything was "back up to par," he said.

"The Lord was really watching over us."

When John and Dawn Forsgren returned to their Roble home, they found the back half of the three-bedroom structure all but obliterated.

"I feel like I'm in a different world," Mrs. Forsgren, 27, said. "All I kept thinking of is how lucky we were not to get hit by the hurricane and now we come home to this."

But the clouds held a silver lining of sorts: "I hated that tree," said Forsgren, 31, pointing to a splintered pine. "I'm glad it fell."

David Steimel had just learned from the Weather Channel that tornado watches were in effect for Hernando County. Minutes later, they became reality.

"The wind started getting real strong, so I grabbed my little dog and got under the counter," said Steimel, 40, who lives across the street from St. Frances Cabrini. "Glass started smashing in. It was fairly calm, but then it started blowing really hard. I thought my life was going to pass before me."

Shortly after the tornado, Steimel was busy picking up glass and repairing the damage.

"I'm going to need a new roof. The carpet was new," he said. "I think my insurance company is going to drop me."

The tornadoes knocked out power to nearly 2,000 Spring Hill residents, but electricity was restored within a few hours.

The foul weather continued into Citrus County, where two tornadoes touched down between 3 and 4 p.m. There was minor damage, but no injuries, said Citrus Emergency Management director Jim Soukup.

One twister touched down on U.S. 19 just north of Homosassa, Soukup said. Another stirred things up near State Road 44 and the Southern Street area, east of Crystal River and west of Lecanto.